THE secret to unlocking the identity and history of the first peoples in Mindanao rests deep inside the lost caves and hidden crevices in Maitum, a rustic coastal town in Sarangani.

It is here where pre-historic anthropomorphic and burials jars were discovered more than a decade ago.

These caves and crevices are likely also the key to bringing lasting peace in this war torn island.

Unfortunately, these historical places and the priceless treasure throve they contained have become the other significant casualties of the war in Mindanao – a war that has already claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and the exodus of millions of residents from their homes.

The renewed skirmishes between the military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the coastal towns of Maasim, Kiamba and Maitum in Sarangani and in Palimbang in Sultan Kudarat have likewise threatened further discoveries and prevented the preservation of these historical sites.

These priceless discoveries have been barely studied by anthropologists and archeologists that their disappearance and destruction due to the internecine war in Mindanao could mean irreparable loss of political, social and cultural heritages of the people of Mindanao.

The chaos and confusion of the war have already allowed looters to desecrate, fleece and smuggle artifacts behind the backs of government officials and right under the noses of police authorities.

In September, a cache of over 22 bags of broken jars and potsherds were intercepted by authorities in Maitum. These items were later confirmed by to be authentic and could be part of the famed Pinol burial and anthropomorphic jars discovered in 1991.

Unprecedented find

Former National Museum director Gabriel Casal and Dr. Eusebio Dizon, head of the archeological team that dug the Maitum jars 17 years ago, described the cultural artifacts as an “exceptional archaeological assemblage and unparalleled in Southeast Asia.”

These cultural trove was determined to date back to the Metal Age or some 2,000 years ago when this part of Southeast Asia was unknown to the Western world.

In her report, Mindanao journalist Carolyn Arguillas quoted Dizon and Rey Santiago as saying the jars, bearing radiocarbon dates of “1930 plus or minus 50 BP (calibrated date of 5 BC to AD 225) and 1830 plus or minus 60 BP (calibrated date of AD 70 to 370),” are unique in that “they are like portraits of distinct individuals, of specific dead persons whose remains they guard.”

A seminal report on the Pinol discovery is extensively discussed and chronicled in the book “Faces from Maitum.”

Most of the artifacts first discovered in 1991 are now in the possession and care of the National Museum.

Race against time

Neglect and apparent lack of government support to pursue studies on the Pinol find however has left the Ayub cave utterly desecrated, its chambers virtually emptied and severely disturbed.

When news broke out that another burial site was discovered in nearby Sagel Cave in April this year, local government units lost no time in securing the area.

A team from the National Museum was summoned by Sarangani Governor Miguel Rene Dominguez and Maitum Mayor Elsie Perett to the area to conduct further tests and dig into the cave flooring which roof collapsed after a backhoe used to quarry earth fillings for a nearby road maintenance accidentally scraped the hillside.

National Museum archeologist Nida Cuevas said the potsherds, broken jars and human and animal skeletons were prehistoric and “possibly contemporaneous with the Ayub Cave.”

She likewise confirmed that area was a secondary burial site.

To validate her findings, however, this most recent discovery will have to undergo extensive radioactive carbon dating but which the National Museum could not afford because it does not have the money and the expertise to pay for the expensive tests.

“We will use relative dating techniques (as opposed to absolute dating techniques such as radiocarbon dating since this is expensive and we do not have machines and experts to do this),” Cuevas instead said.

Relative dating uses “comparative analysis of artifacts recovered from a particular site with established chronologies for Philippine prehistory and its associated artifacts.”

The presence of animal bones inside the cave, Cuevas further added, also “suggest(s) early practice of ritual offering to the dead.”

But establishing settlements and social organizations existing in that prehistoric era would require extensive excavation and substantial budget.

“To determine social organization in prehistory, we will need to excavate settlement or habitation sites – areas where prehistoric people resided. If we are fortunate to find and excavate such habitation sites, the chance of understanding how societies are organized in the past (social, political, etc.) will be possible,” she explained.

The next question, she asks was, “Where did these people settle?”

Dr. Dizon, however, is definite that the earliest human habitation in Mindanao is in Maitum. “That’s why Maitum is significant.”

The National Historical Institute already declared the Ayub and Sagel Cave as national historical sites and as such all discoveries are to be deemed owned by the state.

The local government unit of Maitum, as well as the provincial government, has also passed a resolution declaring the area as historical site.

There lies the crux

Understanding the past and appreciating the value of the Maitum jars may not be possible as of now given the current tense situation prevailing in the area.

Maitum was once part of Kiamba town, one of the oldest settlements during the American colonial period in Mindanao. Some of the Thomasites sent by the American government to the Philippines found their way to the then undivided Cotabato empire. The Peretts and the Ruges were among those who established settlements in Maitum.

When World War II broke out, the then undivided Kiamba town was scene of one of the fiercest naval and aerial combats in the Philippines.

After the war, relative peace reigned over the area.

When the secessionist war broke out in Mindanao in the early 70s, Kiamba and Maitum (then already part of South Cotabato), along with Palimbang town of Sultan Kudarat further west, became arenas of the bloodiest gun battles between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and government soldiers. Villages were razed to the ground in a war of vendetta that left deep scars among residents, mostly Ilocano settlers and Muslims and Indigenous Peoples who, at one time or another, took different sides in the conflict.

The recent encounters between the military and the MILF, which maintains strong presence and has established strongholds in nearby Palimbang town, undoubtedly jeopardized further studies and possible excavation project in the area.

In June this year, some 200 MILF regulars occupied several villages in Maitum for several hours, including Pinol, and held residents in these areas hostages for several hours. One member of the civilian volunteer organization (CVO) was killed during the MILF assault.

It triggered a full scale war which only subsided when the MILF withdrew from the villages of Pinol, Kalaong, Mindupok and Maguling. The attack also signaled the escalation of armed conflict all over Mindanao.

In July, armed men believed to be MILF members hurled a grenade at the police headquarters in Maasim town and later bombed a transformer owned by the South Cotabato II Electric Cooperative.

On August 18, following the failed signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the government and the MILF, heavily armed Moro rebels attacked the town center of Maasim, killing two civilians in the process.

The military launched a countered attack hitting suspected MILF rebel positions with heavy artillery and aerial firepower.

Thousands fled their homes and many are still reluctant to go back to their villages.

In October, the MILF yet launched another attack. This time, burning a day care center and a village hall in Kiamba. This was followed by several other harassment operations the latest of which was a blitzkrieg midnight sea-borne assault also in a village in Kiamba on All Soul’s Day.

Who cares?

When Sagel Cave was discovered, everybody conceded that a repeat of the Ayub Cave desecration should never happen again.

Mayor Elsie Perett immediately ordered the area cordoned off.

But before she could mobilize her police forces, armed regulars of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were already in the area. The Biwang Provincial Committee of the MILF, headed by its chair Kimboy Bayang, assured the mayor that their presence there was meant to secure whatever artifacts that will be found inside the cave. Fully armed and uniform-clad MILF regulars maintained their imposing presence during the first few days of the discovery.

Not to be outdone, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) also manifested its interest by sending representatives to inspect the site.

Governor Dominguez however called then 1002nd Brigade commander Brig. Gen. Gaudencio Pangilinan who wasted no time deploying a platoon of soldiers to guard the area.

But Muslim elders in the area were wary on the fate of the artifacts found inside the cave.

They have apparently learned their lessons in the Ayub Cave findings where enterprising elders were able to coax Dr. Dizon to shell out huge amount of money to be able to explore the area in 1991.

Only the assurances of Cuevas, and later Gov. Dominguez and Mayor Perett that all artifacts found inside the cave will be preserved and returned to the town after the National Museum have examined them, did the residents allowed the archeological team to dig the flooring of the cave.

When fighting broke out in Maitum in June, the government soldiers posted outside the Sagel Cave were pulled out.

Getting to the area nowadays has become a risky proposition for anybody who would wish to even relish what could become of Sagel and Ayub Caves in the quest for peace and understanding the history and the future of Mindanao.

With the war continuing to take its toll on the daily lives of residents in Sarangani and all over central and other parts of Mindanao, the Maitum jars and still to be discovered caves and crevices and their repository of priceless and invaluable artifacts have become mute casualties of the Mindanao conflict.

The trouble is that there seem to be two existing governments in the remote villages of Maitum.

Yet, not one of them is able to comprehend the significance of Faces of Maitum – the first people in Mindanao.